It’s election season once again in Winter Park — and this time the mayor’s seat is up for grabs.
Mayor Steve Leary will look to defend his seat against challenger Jim Fitch in an election set for Tuesday, March 13.
A lot has happened in Winter Park since Leary was elected mayor in 2015. Leary said the city is in great shape, and that’s exactly why he’s running again.
“Everybody’s in pretty good shape, and the majority of citizens that I’ve spoken to in Winter Park feel like everything is headed in the right direction,” Leary said. “I want to keep it going. I’m very proud of the work we’ve done as a City Commission.”
During his time as mayor, Leary has overseen numerous improvements and investments, including the renovation and restoration of the Winter Park Country Club golf course; the purchase of 55 acres of wetland area in the Howell Branch Preserve; securing state money to restore Lake Lillian in Mead Botanical Garden; removing the dense R-4 zoning category from the city’s zoning code; and urging the city to pursue a fiber optic network to help implement better traffic signalization and get cars moving throughout the city.
“We have a (country) club that was losing between $200,000 and $450,000 a year and now it breaks even or makes money and it’s one of the top 10 nine-hole golf courses in the country,” Leary said. “It’s beautiful to look at.”
Leary believes he’s also brought a sense of harmony to the City Commission as mayor.
“I don’t think we always agree, but we work together very well,” he said. “There was a lot of animosity early on before I became mayor, but I think that’s come and gone.”
Before being elected mayor, Leary also served for four years as a city commissioner.
Leary said his longtime experience and track record prove he is the best person for the job.
“My record is indicative of how I operate,” Leary said. “You want a leader who knows how to lead … you need someone who’s experienced sitting in that seat.”
Fitch is happy to call Winter Park home, but he wants to see the character of the city preserved and development under control.
Fitch said he hopes to stop unnecessary changes to the city’s comprehensive plan and future land use designations, and that he’s concerned that Winter Park will become “a city of six-story apartments and concrete parking garages.”
“The comprehensive plan, which is well thought out by a lot of good people, is not being honored now,” Fitch said. “It’s not real evident, but the zoning keeps getting changed.”
Another issue Fitch hopes to tackle is traffic, which he hopes to address by requiring an overall traffic study by staff and requiring a staff traffic and parking study on all new projects.
The Louisiana native moved to Winter Park in 2016 after living in Haines City for six years. He served on the board of adjustments and chaired the finance advisory board in Haines City, and briefly served on the planning and zoning board as well. Fitch also served in the U.S. Navy as an officer in the Navy Civil Engineering Corps., and served in two tours in the Philippines.
Fitch’s journey to Winter Park was the result of him looking for a new home with his wife, Doriana, who was previously living in Jacksonville. Her son lives in College Park, and Fitch decided it was time to find a new place.
“When we put our homes together, it was natural to move to this area,” Fitch said. “We chose Winter Park over College Park and Lake Nona. It’s a lovely city.”
Fitch said it’s his background serving on city boards and in the military that gives him an edge in the race for the mayor’s seat.
“I know finance, and I know city planning,” Fitch said. “I know budgets, and in my Navy experience, we had a 30,000-employee public works center in the Philippines. ... I have relevant experience.”